On Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists updated the hands (PDF) of the famous “Doomsday Clock,” placing it at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. The decision was primarily borne on the back of the election of Donald Trump as the United State’s latest president. The move represents a 30-second shift from the three-minutes-to-midnight in 2016. The 2017 decision is the first 30-second shift in the clock’s 70-year history.
In its comments on their decision, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists outlines a range of recent developments that it sees as driving the world closer to nuclear disaster. During the Cold War, this largely meant a total strategic nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, which would indeed have led to a total “doomsday” scenario, but today is somewhat more diffuse, accounting for newer nuclear powers with smaller arsenals who may nonetheless consider nuclear use.
In the context of the Asia-Pacific, our region of interest at The Diplomat, the possibility of nuclear use has been uncomfortably high, even without the addition of the Trump factor in the United States. The region currently has four declared nuclear states: China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. China is a recognized nuclear power under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council while India and Pakistan have both refused to sign the NPT. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 after having ratified it in 1985.
This year’s report on the Doomsday Clock decision draws considerable attention to North Korea, which remains at the top of the list of nuclear concerns. The report acknowledges North Korea’s fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests last year:
North Korea conducted two more nuclear weapons tests, the second, in September, yielding about twice the explosive power of the first, in January. Pyongyang also relentlessly tested missiles, achieving a rate of about two launches per month in 2016. In his 2017 New Year’s statement, Kim Jong-un declared he would soon test a missile with an intercontinental range. The UN Security Council passed new sanctions against North Korea in November 2016 in an effort to further limit the country’s access to cash, but there is no guarantee those sanctions will succeed where others have failed.
Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric on its nuclear capability had intensified over the last year. The potential for a nuclear disaster on the Korean peninsula remains high as North Korea’s capabilities steadily advance.
Meanwhile, in South Asia, the prospect of nuclear use also lingers between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s development of low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons has lowered the threshold for nuclear first-use. Islamabad envisions using these low-level weapons to stop an Indian conventional advance. The first weeks of 2017 have additionally seen Pakistan carry out two important first-time tests of burgeoning platforms: the Babur-3 submarine-launched cruise missile and the Ababeel medium-range ballistic missile with a claimed multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capability both pose destabilizing challenges. Pakistan continues to maintain the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.
India and Pakistan additional appear to be locked in an arms race. As I noted in a piece on Pakistan’s Ababeel test earlier this week, New Delhi’s no-first-use doctrine may come under increasing political stress as Pakistan continues to develop a MIRV-ready strategic deterrent. India’s nuclear environment, meanwhile, extends beyond Pakistan, with New Delhi increasingly concerned about fielding a suitable deterrent to China. An India-China nuclear exchange remains highly unlikely, but India continues to develop platforms primarily to bolster its China-facing nuclear deterrent.
China, meanwhile, has made important advances with its own strategic forces, but does not feature prominently in the Doomsday Clock adjustment calculus this year. Incidentally, the week of the report’s release coincided with reports that China had deployed its MIRV-capable DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile in the country’s northeast, in Heilongjiang province — a report swiftly denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The Bulletin does highlight China’s assistance to Pakistan on “submarine platforms,” likely referring to the pending delivery of four S20 submarines (export versions of the Type 039 and Type 041 Yuan-class) and technical assistance for the construction of four more in Pakistan.
Thursday’s unveiling of the symbolic Doomsday Clock adjustment to two-and-a-half minutes-to-midnight puts the risk of global nuclear disaster at the highest level since 1953, the year after the united States tested its first thermonuclear bomb. In 2017, it’s clearer than ever that Asia’s four nuclear states play an important role in the balance of nuclear risk.